3D Printing: The medium for smart industries

3D printing

The industrial production systems, maintained  to date under the premises of mass production and globalisation, are starting to show their weakness and are leaving the door open to alternatives such as 3D printing.

One of the foundations of Smart Cities is logistics and supplying consumer goods, both for infrastructures and for the people living in urban areas.

Industrial production systems, maintained to date under the premises of mass production and globalisation, are starting to show their weakness and are leaving the door open to alternatives such as 3D printing.

3D printing is not a really new technology. Also known as “additive manufacturing”, the first references to “printed” models created by superimposing layers of materials successively until the desired model is completed, date back to the beginning of the 80s, although it was not until a few years ago that 3D printing hit the headlines in the technology and economics press. From certain areas, three dimensional printing has been associated with iterating the industrial production process which, until now, was based on the methods proposed by people of the magnitude of Henry Ford, when he introduced the idea of mass production. For the moment it is a movement that is evolving constantly and which is increasingly adopted by first-rate professionals, and more recently by users now that prices of some models have come down enough to be affordable to private individuals.

The essence of 3D printing is the ease with which you can create a digital work flow, from modelling using CAD design software, to making prototypes or products ready for selling.

Today 3D printing is far from being the revolution that some groups thought it would be. It has the potential to be a revolutionary trend, but is still not a substitute for traditional production methods based on large scale manufacturing and market economies based on supply and demand statistics or laws. It has drawbacks such as the slowness at the end of a job or the limitations in the size of the printed parts, even though the figures for additive manufacturing are continually significant. According to analysts like Gartner, the 3D printing business will move 3,100 million dollar on a world scale in 2016 and 5,200 million in 2020. Also, Gartner talks about reductions in the prices of professional printers, which will fall below 2,000 dollar in 2016. The SmarTech consultancy office predicts that in 2018, 3D printing will move 5,100 million dollar, based on the reference of 1,714 million which this market sector reached in 2011.

3D Bridge

Today, professional additive printers are those exceeding 5000 dollar in price, which is above a reasonable level if you are thinking about investing in a technology as recent as this one. Nevertheless, people are starting to create business models around both actual printers and on demand printing services, where it is possible to commission physical object modelling based on CAD files, without having to invest in actually purchasing a printer. In the popular crowd funding portal, KickStarter, there are several projects associated with this type of technology. The Form1 model by formlabs is probably the most popular and well known, with almost 3 million dollar raised and at a price of 3,299 dollar. It may seem a high amount for a model intended for a diverse segment, and even aimed at non-professional enthusiasts. However, it is important to consider that it uses a high precision and quality finish technology, such as stereolithography (SLT) using photopolymers as materials. Another leading popular system is Makerbot Replicator (www.makerbot.com) as it already has various models on the market, including one with two head pieces and priced at 2,800 dollar. This model uses extrusion technology based on successively depositing layers of molten plastic (ABS or PLA polycarbonate) that solidifies when it comes into contact with air.

Types of 3D printing

Essentially the differences between various types of printers, lie in the type of material used to build the objects and the kind of technique that is needed to cause this material to be deposited as accurately and quickly as possible on the points indicated by the software, where the CAD files are uploaded with the specific designs that are to be applied.

Extrusion printing is one of the most affordable, and the one that is controlling the consumer market. The material used is a filament of thermoplastic material, like PLA or ABS, which is melted in the extruder and deposited with variable pressure, depending on the time users want to invest in the finishing on the object. The greater the accuracy, the longer it takes to complete a project. The material is cheap, about 20 € per kilogram, and the printers can cost between 500 € and 3,000 € depending on the model.

Metal wire printing uses a thread made from different types of metal using EBM technologies [Electron Beam Melting], whereby a structure is created by the CAD software that controls the movement of the head piece depositing the molten material.

Another approach to building 3D objects is granular 3D printing. The base material has a granular structure and it is deposited onto the base of the printer, where the structure is going to be formed. Using electron beams or lasers, only the part of the material that will be part of the final structure is melted down. And the tray is lowered layer by layer leaving the final structure uncovered as the granular material leaves the end object visible. The materials that can be used are metal alloys, such as titanium, stainless steel or aluminium.

A similar ink injection based system uses powdered material. Powdered material is deposited, layer by layer, in the areas corresponding to the object. A layer of adhesive material is superimposed over another layer of powdered material. In the end, the excess material is removed without any difficulties, leaving just the 3D object.

Light initiated polymerisation is one of the most promising printing methods. The Form1 model uses this technology which is based on depositing a liquid photopolymer on the surface where the object in question is going to be built, and using laser or other photopolymer sensitising methods to solidify it. The tray with the liquid polymer is lowered as the object hangs down until the process is completed. The result is high precision and definition, which is appropriate for making jewellery prototypes, for example. The problem is the price of the resins used, which is much higher than thermoplastics, for example.

Rapid industrial prototyping

The industrial version of 3D printing is rapid prototyping, where machinery worth hundreds of thousands of Euros is used to manipulate all kinds of materials to construct unique models, without the need for manual methods. The aerospace or car industries particularly benefit from these technologies, where the real scale vehicle model can be built within a limited time period, and in a much more versatile way than when using artisan techniques.

The materials used in this section even include ceramics, depending on the desired result.

Manufacturers like General Motors already use this type of solutions to accelerate the renovation cycles of their vehicle ranges so that it is easier and more economical to adopt new technologies and adapt to industry requirements and consumer tastes. This type of application uses 3D printers that can handle very large size parts, as well as much shorter completion times than more modest models. They can also work with metals and technical materials with different characteristics. These machines are expensive, up to hundreds of thousands of Euros. However, they easily pay for themselves thanks to the possibility of creating parts in hours or days, as opposed to weeks or months.

Gm and Lotus rapid prototyping systems with 3dSystems

Rapid prototyping is really the section where 3D printing is now creating an industrial revolution. The fact that it can accelerate iterations in product ranges, as happens with vehicles, means that less units of each car model are manufactured, and at the same time it influences the way production changes are designed so that it is profitable to manufacture less units of each product, or that it is possible to adapt the chains to different products. 

In architecture, people are starting to use additive technology to build functional blocks for constructing buildings with cement and mortar. At http://www.buildfreeform.com/ you can find more information about the work that has been carried out recently at Loughborough University, using 3D printing technologies to manufacture buildings parts that can directly include wiring or piping in the actual structure. This saves on space and makes design more flexible for architects because it offers more room for manoeuvre to use geometries that were impossible to build beforehand.



In Spain, the reference company in the 3D prototyping world is Sicnova3D which started its career in 2007 in Jaén, and has become the official distributor for one of the world's leading firms in additive technology printing: 3Dsystems (www.3dsystems.com). Recently Sicnova3D opened its first integral 3D printer centre in Spain. The firm's director, Mikel Arbeloa, highlights the three aspects defining this first establishment, the only one of its kind in Spain: the physical shop where you can see what kind of parts can be obtained with this type of machine. There is the on-demand 3D printing service, where you can commission part printing, based on orders from users or companies. The third section is the training area, which requires special attention at a time when demand is growing for professionals capable of handling design tools and CAD to design the parts and components which will later be turned into tangible objects.

Another firm focused on the professional segment is StrataSys, although recently it signed an agreement with Makerbot (www.makerbot.com) where the latter will become an integral part of the Stratasys structure. Makerbot is a semi-professional printer for enthusiasts which has gained most popularity over the last year. It is also one of the best selling models using extrusion technology and thermoplastic materials as the medium. StrataSys offers both printers for all kinds of public and with the capacity to handle all kinds of materials, as well as printing and prototyping services via its subsidiary RedEye 

Stratasys photo gallery in Fickr

The factory at home

One of the 3D printing applications that has created most headlines is the one associating this technology with moving industrial production from factories to homes, in a very sensible scenario within the Smart Cities context, where only those goods and products needed for immediate use will be manufactured, with a high degree of customising. However, irrespective of how romantic this idea may be, it is still a long way off. Homes can now buy a 3D printer, but only to manufacture small goods and objects, with the part finishing times lasting many hours for complex parts. Objects can be designed such as games, mobile phone shells, spectacle frames, plastic costume jewellery, chess pieces, bolts, coasters, logos, glasses, decorative objects, ashtrays or even spare or completely new Lego parts. In online repositories like Thingiverse you can find hundreds of models ready for printing or customising, providing the user knows about graphic design . However, this type of home printing is not yet able to replace industrial manufacturing.

A more realistic scenario is local printing centres, in your district, which offer on-demand professional 3D printing services and offer inhabitants from a particular district, a range of industrial services for manufacturing spare parts for household appliances, vehicles, furniture or even for the home or buildings. The “in the cloud” variant already exists, as is the case of Sculpteo, which allows the CAD model to be sent electronically, and once printed, it is sent by messenger to the client.

Even Amazon or eBay already have their own area dedicated to 3D printing, where they sell both printers and consumables and models ready to be printed. In fact, EBay is partners with Sculpteo or MakerBot and offers on-demand object manufacturing services. 

For its part, Amazon specialises in selling printers, consumables and parts for 3D printers in its specific section on additive printing technology. Both cases show that 3D printing is a thriving, established trend that has acquired the necessary inertia to advance at an ever increasing pace.

3D printing applications

skull 3DThis trend is strengthened by additive technology applications: from the car or aerospace industry, to architecture or medicine. For example, dental parts are already printed with a degree of precision that is very difficult to obtain using manual techniques. And people are already talking about printing organs and parts of the body, like ears, using similar techniques to those used to manufacture industrial objects, but using biological materials instead of metals or plastics. Prosthetic devices are also being made using additive technologies, and on a molecular level, work has already started on building organs from stem cells.

3D printing also has an important role in design and artistic applications, and there are already some pieces of work created using these technologies. The aim is to obtain customised, unique parts, and with 3D printing you can let every citizen have only what he or she chooses, by adapting to his/her particular tastes and ergonomics. 3D printing applied to fabrics is starting to find its niche in fashion catwalks, via garments made from printed fabrics. And in the future it is possible that we will see clothes being commissioned personally, instead of being bought in department stores. 3D scanners are also improving their definition, speed and price, so that in a few years time it will be possible to have a 3D scanner to make a 3D replica of our environment and even of ourselves. Garment sizes will no longer be a problem, and only the garments we need will be made and they will fit us like a glove. An on-demand dressmaking service currently exists. In fact, there have always been tailors, but today's “tailors” are much more technologically minded. Forbes is already talking about movements such as downloading the file with the design and printing it, within the context of e-textiles.

The Paris Fashion Week included designs made with 3D printing, where textile components can be made from technical materials combining flexibility and sufficient softness to ensure the garments are comfortable.

The relationship between 3D printing and Smart Cities can be found in a multitude of applications which, in the end, can be summarised as a more intelligent and optimum use of resources. Smart City is a very wide concept, but this industrial revolution that is beginning with 3D printing, is opening the doors to an extremely important change in paradigm: manufacturing only what is needed. And also, what is manufactured can be customised and optimised for virtually any private use, without having to depend on standard models imposed by industrial mass production. The future production chains will combine traditional and additive systems (you cannot “print” everything), and the speed with which changes can be made to product iterations will be months instead of years. Or even weeks. 

The implications really can be far-reaching if we can eliminate the “need” to manufacture in countries with very low labour costs, under the premise that producing tens of thousands of units makes it profitable to start selling a product. Moving from this model to another, where people “print” at home or in the city, on demand and correctly recycling the goods and products that are no longer used, fits perfectly into the “Smart City” philosophy. It would be a desirable achievement to complete all the parts of the smart city jigsaw, as a concept to improve our quality of life.
It is true that 3D printing can also be used to manufacture such questionable objects as weapons. Not long ago there emerged the case of a printable pistol model that could be downloaded from the Internet. This challenged the whole technology community to search for ethical arguments which, in the end, depend on people's ethics, both for 3D printing and for creating designer drugs. Nevertheless, overall the positive implications must take precedence over negative aspects.

Clone Wars Project: build your own 3D printer

The 3D printing movement is a very open system. So much so that there are resources on line where we can get precise instructions on building our own household 3D printer, at much more economical prices than if we were to buy a commercial model. Also, software applications are offered for handling the printers without having to spend money on professional application licences.

One of the most complete and active projects is Clone Wars (www.reprap.org/wiki/Proyecto_Clone_Wars). Its page and forums provide drawings and precise instructions for assembling a 3D printer, providing you have minimum electronics and DIY knowledge.

There are tutorials, part banks, links to all kinds of resources, like 3D model repositories, or even shops for buying the materials needed to complete the models, such as metal rods, bearings or nuts and bolts.

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